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Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s «On Man and his Circumstances»

A Translation of «Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse»


Edward T. Larkin

This book includes both the original German version and, for the first time, an English translation of Carl Wilhelm Frölich’s important essay of 1792, which Georg Foster praised as «one of the rarest creations of our time, the work of a young, right-thinking and sensitive man.» Published anonymously, Frölich’s treatise consists of ten Platonic-like dialogues between Erast and Philemon, the central interlocutor, and four interspersed reflections. In response to Erast’s opening question – «What! I should not educate my children for the state? Does a teacher have a higher, nobler purpose?» – Frölich/Philemon addresses the major concerns of the late eighteenth century from the vantage point of materialist ethics: the path toward happiness, natural and conventional feelings, truth and propriety, human freedom, active and passive education, nature and morality, virtue and justice, legislation and social behavior, reason and religion, and the requirements of a good teacher. Underlying all of these concerns is Frölich’s belief that social circumstances significantly determine individual happiness. If humanity is to become happier, these circumstances must be changed via pupil-oriented education and opposition to private property with its dehumanizing profit system. Frölich represents a unique voice in the conversation on human perfectibility in eighteenth-century German intellectual history.

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Dialogue 9



ERAST: The time is now approaching, dear Philemon, a time that has often made me nervous. My children have reached the age where they need more precise direction. I am not able to guide them because I am bound to a duty that is unrelated to their education; even if this were not the case, I’ve already admitted to you that, with respect to human nature, I am not so keen an observer that I can precisely determine what is beneficial to them in every case and what isn’t. Nature has wanted me to calculate her powers merely according to their return, whether profit or loss. I am content with this vantage point; it too is a necessary link in the chain of things, and that is why I am eagerly looking for a man who may assume that role for me. But where and whom do I choose? To assess someone’s worthiness, one must at least have determined one’s own worthiness, and given this conviction, may I entrust this choice to my own judgment? Tell me – I want to know from you – the characteristics by which I can recognize someone who will be helpful to me.

PHILEMON: I wish I could make clear to you my willingness but also my inability to do so. Ever since artifice has driven the truth out of us, and since individual originality has had to give way to the ubiquitous presence of the necessity of...

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